Are Great Remote Workers Born or Made?

are great remote workers born or made

What makes a good remote employee? If you transplant any regular office employee to remote conditions, will he/she be as productive? Is there a certain “type” of employee who thrives when working from home?

These are fundamental questions about the future of work. As more and more companies choose the remote path, understanding this “born vs made” debate is crucial for entrepreneurs and HR managers.

I’ve had an opportunity to explore these questions over two years of building a distributed marketing agency. I’ll discuss some of my findings as well as the latest research on remote work in this post.

Remote Workers are Happier but Disengaged

There is a naive perception that people who work remotely are all happier and more productive than their office counterparts. After all, who would want to drive 90 minutes each day just to sit in a cubicle?

The statistics certainly back it up. A study by TINYPulse found that remote workers are happier and feel more valued at work. Another study conducted by Stanford and Ctrip found that employees are more 13% productive working from home. A survey of 24,000 workers by Polycom, Inc. and Future Workplace found that 98% of employees feel “anywhere working” improves their productivity.

For all these positive numbers, however, there are some downsides to remote work as well.

For instance, the TINYPulse study referenced above found that remote workers have poor bonds with their co-workers. Another study published in Harvard Business Review concluded that remote workers feel “left out”. A Gallup study discovered that employees who work remotely 100% of the time feel more “disengaged” than their office-going counterparts.

This points to a disconnect between what employees feel about remote work and how they’re managed by their employers. If your remote workers feel left out of the workplace or disengaged with the company culture, it points to a flaw in management.

The solution to this problem is twofold:

  • Hiring “remote-friendly” people
  • Managing remote employees proactively.

I’ll share tips on how to do both of these below.

How to Hire “Remote-Friendly” Employees

Not every person makes a good remote employee. Naturally outgoing people who thrive off the energy of a busy office environment might not be happy working alone. Likewise, people with poor written communication skills might not fit into a remote team.

The key to successful remote work, therefore, is to look for “remote-friendly” employees. Here are a few things you should consider:

1. Focus On Self-Management Capabilities

One of the biggest challenges of remote work is self-management. In the absence of the strict schedule and physical presence of an office, it is remarkably easy for employees to slack off. They might put off work during regular office hours by thinking they can make up for it on the weekend – a plan that seldom plays out right.

This is why you need to focus on hiring people who’ve demonstrated clear self-management capabilities. That is, they have strong control over their emotional reactivity, can adapt to circumstances, and are achievement-oriented – all key parts of ‘emotional intelligence’.

Look for employees who’ve accomplished something outside of a closely monitored environment (such as school or workplace). Some such indicators are:

  • Achievement in entrepreneurship
  • A challenging hobby
  • Initiatives outside of work

Essentially, look for anything that shows the employee’s ability to manage her own time and effort.

2. Ditch Email During Hiring

Email is a seriously underpowered tool for remote work. It is interruptive in nature, barging into your inbox and forcing you to stop what you’re doing. It is also non-spontaneous and can’t accommodate a large number of people without branching off into dozens of threads.

For this reason, a lot of businesses, including mine, have switched entirely to dedicated communication tools such as Slack and project management software to handle all messaging.

Thus, when you’re hiring, you need to focus on the candidate’s ability to communicate on your messaging tool of choice, not email.

For example, after the initial phone screening, I asked all candidates to set up an account on Slack. I created a dedicated Slack channel for the position and invited everyone to join it.

All messages related to the job were routed through this channel. Barring the final acceptance and rejection messages, nothing was sent over email.

The goal of this exercise is to test the candidate’s ability to communicate well outside of email. While most people are already comfortable with email, not everyone can articulate clearly on the chat and project management tools you’ll use in your actual work.

3. Ask Targeted Behavioral Questions

The behavioral interview is core part of many recruitment processes. For those not in the know, behavioral interviewing focuses on the how and why of the candidate’s work, rather than the what.

That is, instead of asking candidates about their achievements, you’ll ask how they achieved it. The goal is to understand the candidate’s behavior from past actions.

When hiring remotely, first make a list of desirable behavioral traits. Identify all the qualities you want in your ideal candidate. Some common remote-friendly traits are:

  • Empathy and emotional intelligence
  • Diligence and punctuality
  • Self-motivation and ambition
  • Cultural sensitivity and collaboration capabilities

Once you’ve identified your traits, make a list of targeted questions for the behavioral interview. Some questions we used in our hiring are:

  • What makes you confident you will thrive in a remote environment? Look for answers that highlight the candidate’s self-motivation and productivity.
  • How do you feel about our product/service? You want people who’ve studied your company and are excited about your product. A lack of enthusiasm will quickly lead to demotivation, especially when working alone.
  • How much of your social life depends on your work colleagues? People without any social life outside of work often struggle in a remote environment. Look for candidates who have a family or large circle of existing friends.
  • What systems or processes do you use to stay on top of your tasks? Look for people who are familiar with a few common productivity systems and tools. This shows that they are at least willing to manage their own time.
  • Describe your home office. Self-motivated people who’ve worked remotely in the past usually have a dedicated home office. If they don’t, they’ll likely struggle with remote work.
  • What is your work schedule like? Do you stick to regular hours? Successful remote workers usually follow a daily schedule. If the candidate’s work hours are irregular, she won’t be a good fit.

Your goal is to tease out insight into the candidate’s behavior and character traits by asking pointed questions. The more these traits align with your desired qualities, the better the odds of the remote hire working out.

If you’re looking for behavioral questions on cultural fit, you can refer to Sean’s article.

How to Manage Remote Employees

Hiring people who would make great remote employees is only one part of the puzzle. You also have to ensure that you use stronger management practices.

Here are three best practices for managing remote employees:

1. Check-In Frequently

Personal experience has taught me that a hands-off approach doesn’t always work when managing remote employees. You have to be willing to check-in frequently and see what your people are doing.

Research shows that employees appreciate frequent check-ins as well. In one survey of 1,100 employees, nearly half (46%) of respondents said that the best managers checked-in frequently and regularly with remote workers.

You might choose to do this on a daily, weekly or biweekly basis. The actual frequency isn’t as important as the consistency with which you do it. Having a fixed time and schedule for your check-ins shows the employees that you are evaluating their performance.

2. Adopt More Visual Communication Forms

One of the biggest drawbacks of remote work is the sense of “presence” offered by a real-world office. When you can’t see or hear your colleagues, you might get the sense that you’re working alone.

One solution to this problem is to adopt more visual communication forms. In one survey of 24,000 workers, 92% of respondents even said that visual forms, such as video collaboration tools, help foster better relationships.

In my agency, we have two practices that encourage more visual communication:

  • We have a daily standup that lasts under 10 minutes and is done entirely over video. This helps reinforce the sense of “team” right at the start of the day.
  • We have an “always-on-Friday” where we leave our video camera on throughout the workday. Anyone can see what other team members are doing at a glance. This helps create that missing sense of presence.

Of course, we also encourage people to jump on video call instead of sending an email when necessary. For creating a sense of team, however, leaving the cameras on all the time really helps.

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Puranjay Singh

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